I have a lot of untold stories. Good. Sad. Stories of determination. Just stories.
Many of you have heard the name John Kuol. Defender at Kenyan Premier League side Kariobangi Sharks. It’s easier to spot me because of the height and if that’s not enough, my dark skin should help you pick me out of any crowd. Make no mistake, I wouldn’t trade my complexion for anything. It is power, the black power.
Away from my appearance and being a player at Sharks a lot happened long before I became a professional footballer.
Representing Sharks in a league match against KCB FC in Machakos
South Sudan. The youngest nation in Africa. We had longed for peace but it came with its fair share of struggles. I was born in a time of war and some of my age mates are still at war. I thank God I can now change a few lives through football back at home.
My parents flew and his family from South Sudan to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya when I was about three months old. I barely knew anything so some of these stories were told when later in life. Books have helped me understand why I wasn’t raised in my country.
A quick search would tell you that Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The place is under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and they are mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
You would be in the same camp with an Ethiopian, Somali, Ugandan and so many people from different countries. There is no time for laxity if you are to survive. When my parents couldn’t contain the war anymore, they moved to Kakuma with my siblings. Four of us.
On arrival in late 1999, the only thing we were guaranteed was peace but there are other vices that we could still see. Drug abuse. Early pregnancies. Things like those that are associated with informal settings. But all dad wanted was peace and food. He said that the sound of the gunshots was too much for him and Kakuma guaranteed until 2003.
The number in the camp had grown due to the persistent war in Sudan and the neighboring countries and food started becoming scarce. My dad had to re-strategise to ensure that all of us had enough to eat. He heard of a newly formed refugee camp in Ethiopia so we had to relocate once again; this time to Dima Refugee Camp. We left without our extended family members.
Dima was a good place; the only challenge we had was with school since I was growing and needed to start schooling. It really unsettled my elder siblings since they had nowhere to continue with their education. The bigger number that had arrived at Dima forced those in charge of the camp to start nursery school which I was enrolled in. But things didn’t go as planned and we had to return to Kakuma early in 2007. Mainly because we were growing so fast and dad felt that he had missed his brothers and who had helped him raise us hence the return.
It was the year Kenya had its elections and things turned worse late that year with the camp forced to host so many internally displaced people who had been forced to flee their homes. Interestingly, when we returned to Kakuma, I was sent straight to class two, so I basically didn’t go through class one like everyone else. I was a bright kid and that showed in my grades.
The age group was mainly composed of aspiring footballers and hip-hop musicians but in the camp, you had to go through school. It was the only sure way to stardom. If we want to leave the camp; we had to go to school because that was the mentality that was instilled in us.
I could only manage to study class two and three in Kakuma before we moved to Nakuru. A year after we left Dima, there was repatriation to South Sudan between 2008 and 2009 so we went back to my home country for a while and that’s how my elder sister got married. So while we returned to Kakuma, she did return to Nakuru-Kenya where her husband had settled. That’s how I found myself in Nakuru a year later after she convinced dad that the place offered a better learning environment that what we had in the camp.
- Me and Mwas during our time at Hyrax-Nakuru
The school I joined was Hyrax Primary School. It still stands and that’s where I met Moses Mwangi, the player you all know as Mwas. I don’t think we were so much into football then but we played during the school games and we were good at it. I was to play with Mwas at both Kakamega High School and Kariobangi Sharks before he left for Ulinzi Stars.
But my football journey didn’t start at Nakuru. At Kakuma, art and football kept us busy. We had a team called Danger FC. It would be a bad name for any visitor in a country but we felt it was the best name we could have settled on. We could hustle for balls. Visit hospitals and pick the used rubber gloves that had been disposed of by the doctors and turn them into balls. We could kick the ball until it burst; all this time with our bare feet. That’s how we formed Danger FC. We didn’t have a manager and the whole team barely had any uniform.
Because people regularly moved, Danger barely had a recognized team so Black Devils was formed. The team was a stark contrast of Danger because they had a team uniform. The founder was an ardent Manchester United fan and made it upon himself to get us proper uniforms; basically United uniforms. The name had been coined from United’s nick name (Red Devils) but since we were darker than dark, Black Devils was a befitting name.
After completing my Class 8 at Hyrax, I decided to go back to Kakuma and join my family for the holidays. At that time, Mwas had some contact with the Kakamega High School head coach Brenden Mwinamo and he was to be offered a trial. Those who passed the trials were to be offered scholarships for their secondary education. I’ll be lying if I said I expected to play football as I was eagerly waiting for my results to continue with my secondary school.
From nowhere, while in Kakuma, I received a strange call. It was Mwinamo on the other end. After a chat, he told me that Mwas had told him about me and they wanted me to travel to Kakamega for the trials. Since Mwas was part of this and we had formed a formidable friendship, I obliged. That’s how I found myself at that great footballing school.
We were going to be part of the first team eventually but in Form one, you don’t expect to walk straight into the first team. There was an array of talent in each position and you had to be the best to make the team. That class had everyone you’d think of in the Kenyan football scene. We could line up now against any team in the country and beat them hands down – trust me when I say that.
That was the belief that was instilled in us. In Form Two, I felt I was good enough to be in the first team. And while I was part of the team, playing time rarely came by for me and I decided to leave the school in search of a school that would give me more game time. That’s how I landed at Menengai High School in Nakuru. I think we were a decent team, not as good as Kakamega, but decent. We made it to the Regional finals and lost. I really wanted to make it to the nationals to show Kakamega what they were missing but things don’t work that way at times.
My Form Three was spent at Menengai but since a chunk of the team were Form Four’s it meant that I was going to be alone in the coming season and that’s how my football journey might have ended. By that time, Kakamega was crying out for a central defender and they approached me once again; it was too good to turn down. The likes of Joseph Okumu (now with IF Elfsborg of Sweden) were leaving and they needed a person to fill the slot and I was to be the man.
I returned to the school for my last year in school and together we made it to the Nationals of the Kenya Secondary School Ball Games that was held in Nyeri where we came third. We then made it to the East Africa Ball Games and had another good outing.
It was only a matter of time since the big clubs came calling for me and my teammates. When at Menengai, Chemelil FC had approached me through their assistant coach Charles Odero who was coaching Chemase Secondary School and I featured for their junior team in the KPL U20. They had Okumu in my final year in school and when they came with an opportunity for their senior team, I couldn’t turn it down because I believed they were best suited for me.
While with the team, game time wasn’t a problem and we had a lot of good memories together. I believe were it not for the financial issues, Chemelil could have won the title at some point when I was still there. The team was made up of young hungry players who were doing everything week in week out with a mixture of experienced players who had the club’s DNA. Yes, we had our struggles but we gave our best every time we showed up for games.
At Chemelil, some headache arose. It was which country to represent. I was born in South Sudan but I had spent a chunk of my life in Kenya. A lot of my schoolmates were being handed junior national call ups to Kenya at a time when South Sudan had not been active in junior tournaments. But when I asked my parents on what to do, their choice was always going to be South Sudan. And while I was young and eager to represent a nation, I was to wait for my chance. It was to come later with the South Sudan U23 while I representing Kariobangi Sharks at club level.
In action for the South Sudan national team against Uganda
Sharks were to call six months after I had joined Chemelil and I couldn’t turn them down since they had a good offer. Furthermore, they had some of my school mates and adapting was going to be easy. William Muluya believes in young players and their project proposal, as narrated by their chairman when I arrived at their offices, was the best.
That’s where I have been to date. But the journey has just started. I still believe I’ll continue with my education at one point in my career. I really liked school and I want to have a degree. Maybe a Masters too. If God allows me, I’ll do a PhD. I’m dead serious about this.
I do go back each holiday to the camp to help in my little ways. Buy them balls. We have a program (More than Boots-MTB) with one of my former teammates at Dangers called Jong Kuch who resides in the USA. The kids down there had asked for boots in one of our visits and we felt we could do more hence the name. We make it upon ourselves to visit as regularly as possible just to encourage them.
I have other aims though. I want the war in my country to stop. I dream of a day where we have no one at Kakuma. The peace you find at home can never be found anywhere and everyone deserves it. It’s my aim that one day I’ll be back in my country to help.
For now, I want to continue playing at the highest level. I know I can make it. Just as I was determined when I was Kakuma. No matter where football takes me, Kakuma will always be home. That place made me. Kenya is my home and since the two countries share the same flag colours, I’ll always feel at home here as I should have felt in South Sudan.
(Main Pic: Fabian Odhiambo)